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CONS, EX-CONS FIND MONEY AND A VOICE: GHETTOHEAT

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CONS, EX-CONS FIND MONEY AND A VOICE By Dwayne Campbell

Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer, 4/2/06

 

 

After averting a life sentence for drug trafficking, Leondrei Prince settled down to serve eight years in a Delaware state prison. With time to kill, he read voraciously – Webster’s Dictionary, chick lit by Terry McMillan, old urban fiction by Donald Goines, and new-school street lit by Teri Woods. Then Prince wrote, just as voraciously. A few pages turned into Bloody Money, followed by Bloody Money 2, Me ‘n My Girls, and nine other manuscripts, written in the strong, often profane language of the inner-city streets where he grew up.

 

“I knew that when I got out, I couldn’t go back to selling drugs, and I wouldn’t be able to get a job,” said Prince, 33, who has had three books published since his release in 2003, “so I started looking at writing as a job. But this has exceeded all my expectations.”

 

Books by inmates, both current and former, are an increasingly lucrative segment of the fast-growing genre known as “street lit,” “ghetto lit,” “urban” or “hip-hop” fiction. In many prisons, men and women on lockdown are spending their hours of solitude in a most un-Oz-like fashion, putting pens to yellow pads and finding words to describe the lives of poverty and excess that put them on a path to the slammer.

 

“Right now it’s the biggest fad in prison,” said street lit agent Joseph Jones, who signed Prince while they were both serving time for drug charges in Delaware. “The biggest drug dealer, the smallest crook, they’re writing books.” The results are titles such as Dangerously Insured, by Shafeeq (Reginald Johnson), a state inmate from North Philadelphia; Thugs and the Women Who Love Them, by Wahida Clark, a Trenton woman who is locked up at Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia; The Family II: Life After Death, the second book by Philadelphian Antonne M. Jones, who spent two years in a Delaware prison; and Memoir: Delaware County Prison, by ex-inmate Reginald L. Hall from West Philadelphia. The books, often published under pseudonyms modeled after rappers, are hits, especially among young people in urban areas.

 

“They write about stuff I can relate to,” said Lynndrena Evans, a 19-year-old Community College of Philadelphia student who has read Prince’s books and other street lit. “It’s stuff we consider everyday life.” Freebbie Rivera, a language arts instructor at Horizon Academy, a school at New York’s Rikers Island jail, said more inmates are writing books because “they see the success of other incarcerated authors, and they get motivated.” Vickie Stringer, for example, left prison and a cocaine-trafficking past to become a best-selling author (Let That Be the Reason; Imagine This); start her own publishing company, Triple Crown; and cut a six-figure deal with Simon & Schuster. “Now they’re writing manuscripts and asking for help with editing,” said Rivera.

 

Commonly, the writers self-publish after they get out of prison. But some start-up publishers and authors find each other and sign book contracts while they are both stuck in D-block. Prince’s Bloody Money, which chronicles the drug trade and lives of four friends in Wilmington, was first a hit in Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington. When inmates were clamoring for Prince’s manuscript, Joseph Jones became his agent and started charging prisoners - cigarettes or a can of soup - to read the work. Now, in book format, Bloody Money is available to anyone for $15, and selling briskly. According to Jones, the book has sold more than 50,000 copies since it was released, and the sequel, Bloody Money 2, is nearing the 25,000 mark.

 

“Selling 20,000 in paperback for an unknown author is very respectable,” said Charlotte Abbott, a senior editor at the trade bible Publishers Weekly. “Fifty thousand in three years is nothing to scoff at.” Although many street lit titles are now in chain stores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, experts say actual sales numbers are difficult to determine because sales out of car trunks, mall kiosks, and street-corner stands are not tracked. Overall, the urban-fiction genre grosses about $50 million annually, said Earl Cox, the New Jersey agent and book consultant who published Hall’s gay-themed memoir and brokered Clark’s books to Kensington Publishing Corp. after Thugs landed on Essence magazine’s best-seller list.

 

Clark wrote Thugs and the sequel, Every Thug Needs a Lady, while serving her 101/2-year sentence for conspiracy, money laundering, and mail and wire fraud. Since going to Alderson, she has completed Payback Is a Mutha (in stores this month) and is currently working on a fourth book.

 

Kevin Cunningham, 35, imprisoned at Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica, N.Y., on drug charges, hopes the three books he wrote behind bars on legal pads help him avoid a fourth prison term. “When I get home in July, I don’t have to focus on the streets,” said Cunningham, whose first manuscript, Sin City, is being edited by his cousin, Philadelphia-based author and literary agent Karen E. Quinones Miller. “I have found something I love.”

 

Jailhouse writers are prolific, said Mustafaa As-Salafi, 35, owner of Level V Publishing, because the only time that many people in the fast lane get to think about their lives is while they are in a cell. “When you are in jail, there aren’t too many outlets,” As-Salafi said. “And if your family cuts you off, you don’t have a whole lot of contact with the streets. All you can do is read, watch TV and write.” With assistance from family members on the outside, As-Salafi started Level V Publishing while serving 51/2 years at State Correctional Institution at Smithfield for a shooting. He left there three months ago and last month released Shafeeq’s Dangerously Insured, a novel about two girls who insure drug pushers and violent criminals they believe are sure to die. Shafeeq is still in the Huntingdon County prison, along with other budding authors, who include Monk (George Smith) who is in for life, and Cutty (William Alston), who will be released soon. Level V plans to publish their books this year. The flood of prison writing, As-Salafi believes, is a result of the alarming numbers of incarcerated African Americans, many of them casualties of the war on drugs and three-strikes laws that ushered in long sentences for violent crimes and crack cocaine dealing.

 

According to the federal Bureau of Prisons at the Department of Justice, in 2003 (the latest year for which data are available), there were 586,000 adult African American males in state and federal prisons (there were 35,000 black women). “We’re the result of that,” said As-Salafi. “We are the ones now explaining what happened during that time, why we robbed, why we sold drugs.” Not all jailhouse writers wait for a publisher to walk into their cell. Jones and other street lit publishers say they receive dozens of letters and unsolicited manuscripts from prisons.

 

“There’s a lot of raw talent in these facilities,” said HICKSON, 36, the head of Harlem-based GHETTOHEAT® who goes only by his last name. GHETTOHEAT® published CONVICT’S CANDY, co-written by Philadelphian DAMON “AMIN” MEADOWS, now in federal prison for dealing drugs. “Every week, I get about 20 letters and manuscripts and 15 of them are from jail.”

 

As these books make it to stores, some people express concern about the in-your-face literature that’s peppered with inner-city clichés (the young girl falls for the drug lord) and amusing stretches of the imagination (prostitutes in Prada). “You don’t see literary leaps being taken,” said Patrik Henry Bass, books editor of Essence. “But the authors shouldn’t be broadly discounted,” said H. Bruce Franklin, the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American studies at the Newark campus of Rutgers University. Like street fiction fathers Iceberg Slim and Goines, who both served time, the new writers are capturing the life they know. “When they are able to look at their own experience and turn that into some kind of art, it can be valuable for them and for everyone else,” said Franklin, author of Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist. It’s unlikely that Payback Is a Mutha will displace Beloved as a favorite among the literati, but those behind street lit say that was never their intention. “A lot of people want to read about what they know,” Jones said. “The books are selling because people relate to them.”

 

CONVICT'S CANDY

WRITTEN BY DAMON "AMIN" MEADOWS & JASON POOLE

CONVICT'S CANDY

EDITED BY HICKSON

CONVICT'S CANDY

A GHETTOHEAT® PRODUCTION

 

EBOOK & PAPERBACK: SOLD & DISTRIBUTED EXCLUSIVELY AT GHETTOHEAT®!

 

HICKSON: CEO of GHETTOHEAT® & GHETTOHEAT® TV!

 

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